The best friend on earth of man is the tree: when we use the tree respectfully and economically we have one of the greatest resources of the earth.
The backcountry slopes of Wyoming offer some of the most amazing skiing and riding experiences in the world. But slope activities in the hinterland require an entirely different approach than skiing at a resort.
And the risk of avalanche is very real out there.
A Bad Year
For the last two years, Wyoming has fortunately witnessed only a few snowslide fatalities. But 2016 was the deadliest year in more than a decade: six people lost their lives to Wyoming avalanches in 2016. That was more than any other state, including Alaska.
The following 2012 video clip demonstrates how quickly snowslide can develop:
Bob Comey is a forecaster with the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center. He believes the inexperience of adventurers heading into the backcountry was one of the main reasons 2016 was so deadly.
“You know we have more people going out taking more risks, and some of them are maybe not as knowledgeable and as experienced or prepared as they could be,” said Comey.
An Ounce of Prevention
So before venturing into an area with steep terrain, be sure to check the avalanche forecast in your area, as well as weather conditions for the day.
Even better, take an avalanche safety course or clinic, especially if you’re planning to spend an entire season on the backcountry slopes. Courses in Jackson are offered by American Avalanche Institute and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, among others.
Never venture into the backcountry alone; always take at least one other person with you, and be sure to keep the other people in sight.
Avalanche Safety Gear
Make sure that you and your companions all have the proper equipment, including the three following mandatory safety items:
- Avalanche transceiver: Also called a beacon, this is an electronic device worn on the side of the body that can send and receive radio signals. The transceiver emits a signal that rescuers can pick up and interpret into a visual and audible display that assists the search.
- Avalanche probe: This collapsible metal rod is used to probe for a buried victim immediately after an avalanche.
- Avalanche shovel: This collapsible snow shovel is used for testing snow conditions and digging out victims.
You’ll also want to bring a backpack, some water, and some high-energy food (such as energy bars, jerky or trail mix).
Additional gear you may wish to consider:
• Snow Saw
• Airbag Pack
• Extra Layers of clothing
Reading Your Terrain
Recognizing the types of terrain and pathways avalanches take is extremely important, and can save your life. Check for “anchors” on the slope before you head down. These would include trees, rocks and other natural formations that will catch, stop or otherwise impede a snowslide.
Slope steepness is also an important consideration. Contrary to what you might see in the movies, an area does not require a lot of pitch for an avalanche to occur. While most avalanches start on hillsides with a slope between 35-40 degrees, even a 25-degree slope is considered potential avalanche terrain.
So enjoy the beautiful pristine slopes of the Wyoming backcountry…but be careful out there!